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Veteran group setting lofty goals for Panthers

Being counted on to lead the Park Rapids fastpitch softball team to another successful season are seniors (front from left) Natalie Kinkel, Paige Hepola, Kaisa Coborn; (back) Kylee Pachel, Gracie Eischens (manager), Casey Witkin (manager), Kendra Coborn. Vance Carlson / Enterprise

Over the last three seasons, the Park Rapids fastpitch softball team has been one best Class AA teams in the state during the regular season.

The Panthers have posted a 24-2 record in winning three straight Mid-State Conference titles while going 66-9 overall. Unfortunately, six of those losses have occurred during the Section 8AA playoffs.

With seven starters returning, head coach Marion Goeden is once again counting on the Panthers to contend for conference and section titles.

"I expect to have a very good season as long as we stay healthy," said Goeden, who will be assisted by Ken Tretbar, Aarin Galzki and Ken Bynum. "We will have to do things right to get there. A team doesn't just pick up where it left off last season. There are adjustments to make and work to be done. Every year we need to start over and work hard to meet our season expectations."

Last season, the Panthers hit .384 as a team and scored 253 runs (10.5 per game) while recording a team ERA of 2.22 by allowing only 45 runs (1.9 per game) with 10 shutouts. Park Rapids was rated as high as No. 4 in the state Class AA poll.

The Panthers entered the section tournament as the No. 2 seed in the North and defeated East Polk 11-3, Roseau 5-3 and Thief River Falls 6-0 before being eliminated with losses to Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (2-1) and Thief River Falls (6-4). Those two setbacks ended the Panthers' season at 20-4. D-G-F eliminated the Panthers from the playoffs in 2017 and 2016. Park Rapids entered those two tournaments as the No. 1 seed in the South while going 23-2 in 2017 and 23-3 in 2016.

Focused on leading the Panthers this spring are the seven returning starters: seniors Kaisa Coborn, Kendra Coborn, Natalie Kinkel and Kylee Pachel; juniors Rilee Michaelson and Katelyn Weaver; and sophomore Shailyn Pachel. Kylee Pachel and Michaelson received all-section honors and were joined by Kaisa Coborn as all-conference selections. Kendra Coborn and Weaver received all-conference honorable mention honors.

The four seniors return for their fourth varsity seasons with Kaisa Coborn returning to play right field, Kendra Coborn returning to center field, Kinkel returning at shortstop and Kylee Pachel handling the catching duties. Michaelson will once again handle the majority of the pitching duties with Weaver moving from second base and left field to first base and Shailyn Pachel taking over at third base. The seniors and juniors played in all 24 games last season while Shailyn Pachel played in 11 games at second base.

Kinkel batted .463 (38 for 82) with 37 runs scored, 18 RBI and 13 stolen bases. Kaisa Coborn hit .437 (31 for 71 with five home runs) while scoring 33 runs, driving in 24 runs and stealing 13 bases. Michaelson batted .425 (34 for 80 with five homers and 10 doubles) with 23 runs and 26 RBI. Kendra Coborn hit .398 (33 for 83) and led the team with 40 runs scored and 14 steals while adding 19 RBI. Kylee Pachel batted .343 (23 for 67, including eight doubles) with 21 RBI and 18 runs. Weaver hit .297 (19 for 64 with three triples and two homers) and scored 22 runs while driving in 12. Shailyn Pachel had a .278 batting average (5 for 18) with eight runs and three RBI.

On the mound, Michaelson went 19-4 to set a school record for wins in a season while posting a 2.20 ERA. In 118.6 innings, Michaelson allowed 42 runs (29 earned) on 93 hits and 27 walks with 106 strikeouts. Kaisa Coborn also pitched some innings, going 1-0 with a 2.38 ERA in 11.3 innings. Coborn allowed three hits and three earned runs while striking out 18 in six appearances.

The Panthers have two key spots to fill with the graduation of Tara Johanning at third base and Lexi Hinkley-Smith at first base. Johanning received Class AA Second Team, Section 8AA and Mid-State honors after batting .513 with 30 RBI and 29 runs while Hinkley-Smith batted .259 with 22 runs and 12 RBI.

Looking to fill the other starting spots are sophomores Cassidy Bera and Ellie Ulvin (left field) and freshmen Abby Morris (second base) and Allison Offerdahl (pitcher/outfield).

"We have some very strong players with our seniors. They are very skilled at their positions and all four are terrific leaders," said Goeden. "We will need to have focused practices. We need to be calm during games and at the same time hustle on the field. We need to add the mental component to our practices and games to overcome setbacks. A very important component will be our need to improve on the communication in the field. This group hopes to break some school records at the plate and be stingy giving up runs to our opponents. We will work hard on our hitting this season. We will also work on the mental part of the game on a regular basis."

Starting the season on the junior varsity will be senior Paige Hepola; junior Hailey Goble; sophomores Amber Berndt and Ellie Gwiazdon; freshmen Aurora Annette, Tarynn Arola, Sophie DeWinter, Natalie Harvey, Rachael Herman and Rachel Robbins; and eighth graders Mickey Clark and Chloe Tretbar.

Goeden is relying on the seven starters to carry the momentum from another successful regular season into the playoffs as the Panthers' attempt to end D-G-F's four-year run as section champs.

"The team has set some strong goals for this year. They hope to take the conference and expect to challenge to be a top team in the section," said Goeden, whose team had the season opener at Perham on April 5 and the Park Rapids Invitational on April 13 postponed. "We have played strong defense when we hit sections. What has held us back is scoring enough runs. In order to get past the strongest teams in our section, we need to add some grit to our mental game. Our lack of runs may partly be due to stronger pitching than we are used to seeing, but the mental component also plays in. With the strength of our returning players, we feel we should make a good run to win the conference and be one of the top teams in the section."

SEASON SCHEDULE

April 18 - at Frazee, 4:30 p.m. April 23 - at Crosby-Ironton (2), 4 p.m. April 25 - at Wadena-Deer Creek, 4:30 p.m. April 30 - vs. Aitkin (2), 4 p.m.

May 2 - vs. Detroit Lakes (2), 4 p.m. May 3 - at Barnesville, 5 p.m. May 7 - at Perham, 4:30 p.m. May 10 - at East Polk, 4:30 p.m. May 13 - vs. Crookston, 4:30 p.m. May 14 - at Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, 4:30 p.m. May 16 - at Staples-Motley (2), 4 p.m.

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